December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ferial Pearson knows what it is to be an outsider. Born in Kenya, she is an ethnic Indian, and a Muslim. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, her family was no stranger to prejudice. Kenyans of Indian descent are a minority, and most Indians are Hindu, not Muslim.

Her mother was born in a hut. No one in her family had gone to college. Pearson’s grandfather saved money for much of his life so that she could get a degree. Despite this, her family regularly opened their home to strangers if they needed a place to stay.

Pearson is an instructional coach and clinical practice supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before that, she taught English at Omaha South High School. Many of her students were outsiders—immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income. Moved by the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pearson challenged her students with a question.

Do modest acts of compassion have the power to change a person’s life?

Her students reacted and banded together in taking on the guise of the “Secret Kindness Agents.”

Anonymous acts of random kindness became contagious, and Pearson chronicled the results in a book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change The World. Inspired by a classmate suffering from juvenile diabetes, Pearson allowed the class to decide that every dollar from book sales would be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She told the story last year in a TEDxOmaha talk.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says Person. “If there is a need in the community, it is your responsibility. Whatever we have…whether it’s food, shelter, whatever…that’s a privilege. And we have to give back. It’s the Kenyan way.”

As a noted teacher, mentor, adviser, and advocate, Pearson’s passion for inclusion has been felt by a broad array of often disparate constituencies, ones whose common thread is that of “outsiderness.”

In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect award. The next year she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2014, Pearson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees. This year she was the grand marshal of the Heartland Pride Parade.

She has also given her time to the Avenue Scholars Foundation, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and serves on the board of Inclusive Communities.

“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”

Search Secret Kindness Agents on YouTube to learn more.

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